The title of Máiría Cahill’s searing account of sexual abuse describes, at one level, the appalling individual allegedly responsible. At another, it is a reference to WB Yeats’s poem, The Second Coming: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last / Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?”
The group whose hour has come round at last is Sinn Féin, now the largest party in Northern Ireland and soon to be the biggest in the Republic as well. In the latter, only an unlikely coalition between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael has, since 2020, kept Sinn Féin out of office, while in the north, only the collapse of the Stormont executive prevents them nominating the First Minister to run the province.
It is an astonishing electoral advance for a party that for decades was the political front for a terrorist organisation, however much it tried to pretend otherwise. The Cahill name was prominent in the republican movement. Joe Cahill was a founder of the Provisional IRA; Máiría, the author of Rough Beast (★★★★☆), is his great niece.
Given her background, and where she lived in Belfast, Máiría was targeted for recruitment by the IRA, which she resisted, but she did work in Sinn Féin’s HQ from the age of 16. Her aunt’s husband was an alleged prominent Provisional called Martin Morris, whom Máiría accused of abusing her at their home. But when she told the IRA high command what had happened, they refused to believe her until further allegations were made by other, even younger, girls. The IRA then carried out their own investigation, exercising a bogus right to act as the judge and jury in Nationalist communities even after the end of the Troubles and the Good Friday Agreement. They wouldn’t let Cahill go to the police, and Morris went to ground.
This story is little known on the mainland, but has been a cause célèbre in the Province for some years. Showing remarkable courage, Cahill refused to keep quiet about her traumatic experiences, and eventually Morris was arrested and prosecuted – but the trial collapsed, and he was acquitted both of being a member of the IRA and of the sexual assault charges. The police and prosecutors eventually apologised for the way they had bungled the case, and she took her quest for some form of justice to various official bodies, even getting elected to the Irish senate.
To begin with, Rough Beast reads like a thriller. Cahill is taken to a series of safe houses for meetings with some distinctly dodgy characters who seem disinclined to believe her. The rest is essentially a story of a cover up by Sinn Féin/the IRA, and particularly the role of its former leader Gerry Adams, whom Cahill accuses of being more concerned with protecting Sinn Féin’s reputation than to seek redress for her alleged abuse (though he has consistently denied her claims). Anyone who thinks Adams’s party should be anywhere near power in Ireland should read this book.
They should also delve into The Long Game (★★★★☆), the journalist Aoife Moore’s more historical account of the rise of Sinn Féin, from which Adams emerges equally badly. Controversy has long swirled around the former West Belfast MP, including accusations not only of trying to hush up sexual-abuse allegations but of his having a role in the disappearance and murder of a Belfast mother. For years, Adams would appear on television and the radio to deny he was in the IRA – something no-one believed. As one former terrorist tells Moore: “Gerry was always the O/C [Officer Commanding]… the man who made the decisions. When he denies IRA membership, it means people like myself have to carry the responsibility for all those deaths.”
When Martin McGuinness was invited to Windsor Castle to dine with Elizabeth II, and Sinn Féin leaders attended the coronation of the King, the republican movement had finally arrived in the mainstream. But as Moore’s excellent, well-sourced account demonstrates, Sinn Féin’s inexorable rise is pockmarked with mendacity, cover-ups and cynicism – the latter most starkly displayed by what must rank among the most chilling political speeches of modern times. At the Sinn Féin annual conference in 1981, after Bobby Sands, an IRA hunger striker, had been elected to parliament, Danny Morrison, the party’s publicity director, asked: “Who here really believes we can win the war through the ballot box? But will anyone here object if, with a ballot paper in this hand, and an Armalite in this hand, we take power in Ireland?”
Forty years on, they are on the verge of doing so. Polls show they might win nearly 70 seats in the Dáil Éireann, Ireland’s lower house, at the next election, which would make them by far the biggest party. At Stormont they already are: their leader in Northern Ireland, Michelle O’Neill, will be First Minister when, and if, the political institutions are restored. Yet, as is attested in these two books by women who might otherwise be sympathetic to the cause of a united Ireland, to this day Sinn Féin’s leaders have taken no responsibility for the mayhem and misery wrought in getting there.
Rough Beast by Máiría Cahill is published by Apollo at £16.99, and The Long Game by Aoife Moore is published by Sandycove at £17.99. To order your copies for £14.99 and £15 respectively, call 0844 971 1514 or visit Telegraph Books